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Book Review : Tower Report More Involved With NSC Than Iran-Contra

March 06, 1987|JACK MILES | Times Book Editor

The Tower Commission Report: The Full Text of the President's Special Review Board by John Tower, chairman, and Edmund Muskie and Brent Scowcroft, members; introduction by R. W. Apple Jr., chief Washington correspondent of the New York Times (Bantam Books/Times Books: $5.50; 550 pages).

The Tower Commission Report, just published in book form and selling at a sensational pace, is not, ultimately, a book about the Iran- contra matter.

Iran-contra, the board members state at the outset (and "Iran/Contra" is their usual shorthand), serves them "as a principal case study in evaluating the operation of the National Security Council in general and the role of the NSC staff in particular." The NSC, created in 1947, has never received formal government review. The board members contend "that, quite aside from the circumstances which brought about the Board's creation, such a review was overdue."

They do not mean to be disingenuous. They state plainly that controversy about Iran-contra "threatened a crisis of confidence in the manner in which national security decisions are made and the role played by the NSC staff." But it is that crisis of confidence that their report addresses rather than the specifics either of criminal wrong-doing, if any, or of foreign policy.

The question in many minds when the first Iran-contra news broke was: If this could happen, what else may have happened or might yet happen? The report leaves what else may have happened to the congressional investigating committees. It takes as its own mandate what might yet happen and fulfills that mandate by making Iran-contra the vehicle for a set of recommendations about the NSC--recommendations that President Reagan has now accepted in their entirety.

The report proper is just 100 pages long, and its climax is more reminder than manifesto. It reminds the President that, legally, the executive responsibility is his alone. It reminds the National Security Council that its role is to advise the President as he makes policy, not to compete with the State Department, the CIA or the Department of Defense in implementing policy.

"Those who expect from us a radical prescription for wholesale change may be disappointed," the board members write. Under President Reagan, a national security system that had worked well for 40 years was being dismantled; essentially, the board recommends that it be put back together again.

But if many of the report's concluding 13 pages have the Reagan NSC in mind, not all do. The board, which consulted an extraordinary roster of ex-presidents, ex-vice presidents, ex-secretaries of state, etc., tries hard to make its recommendations grow from the full NSC experience of the past 40 years.

At one point, for example, it writes: "Ideally, the National Security Adviser should not have a high public profile . . . . While a 'passion for anonymity' is perhaps too strong a term, the National Security Adviser should generally operate offstage." But here the report cannot have any of the Reagan Administration security advisers in mind. It was Henry Kissinger, Richard Nixon's security adviser, who turned his position into one of high public profile. President Reagan's security advisers, of whom there have been five, have not had nearly so high a public profile; one or more may well be said to have had a passion for anonymity.

An NSC Primer

The first 15 pages of the report are a primer on the origin and intent of the NSC. The report emphasizes that the only statutory members of the NSC are the President, the Vice President, the Secretary of State and the Secretary of Defense. Even the position of national security adviser is not one established by law. President Eisenhower established it in 1953. Conceivably, another President could disestablish it.

This emphasis on the limited charter of the NSC recurs during the report's 40-page reconstruction of the Iran-contra chronology and its 20-page analysis of "What Was Wrong." The legal status of the NSC staff is the same as (or less than) that of the National Security Adviser, but the power of that staff has grown strikingly during President Reagan's second term.

This central section of the 100-page report proper describes a de facto transfer of power to the NSC from other branches of the U.S. government. And though the board does not claim that Iran-contra is the only example of that transfer, one example is sufficient for its purposes; namely, to establish that the transfer has served the country badly and must be reversed.

The remaining 450 pages of the report consist of eight appendixes. Appendix A is a brief executive order from President Reagan establishing the Special Review Board. Appendixes B, C and D--"The Iran/Contra Affair: A Narrative," "The NSC Staff and the Contras" and "The Aftermath: The Efforts to Tell the Story"--occupy together 400 pages and greatly expand the account of Iran-contra in the report proper.

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